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Chicago by John Olson

The Unmentionables
World Premiere
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

The Unmentionables
Foreground (L-R) Jon Hill and Lea Coco. Background (L-R) Kenn E. Head and Shannon Cochran
Genocidal atrocities in Sudan's Darfur region are a regular subplot on "ER," some 3,300,000 people have died in the Republic of Congo since 1998, and inhuman acts are routinely reported from other countries in Africa. Is it time once again for the good Europeans (and their descendants, the European-Americans) to come over and bring civilization to the inhabitants of the Dark Continent? Do the sub-Saharan Africans need our religion, our education and our more advanced ways of thinking to teach them how to resolve their conflicts more peaceably? Such western paternalism is brutally taken to task in Bruce Norris's new play, set in an unnamed country in western equatorial Africa in the midst of civil war. Our presumed superiority over the Africans is the source of much of its dark humor.

With the house lights up, Étienne, an African teenager, begins the action by chastising the audience for choosing to attend a play rather than something more entertaining like cable TV. In his tank top, pants sagging below his boxers, and a pair of Nikes on his feet, he could be a kid from any big American city if not for his African accent. As Étienne, Jon Hill (a senior at the University of Illinois) makes an impressive and dryly comic Chicago theater debut.

As the action unfolds we learn (slowly, as in the Norris play The Pain and the Itch premiered by Steppenwolf a year ago) how the boy may have been hired by strongmen to burn a local mission. The devout Christian missionary Dave (Lea Coco) is questioning Étienne in an effort to learn more about the attack and also to try to persuade him to recant a potentially damaging rumor he started about Dave. Dave and his fiancée Jane (Shannon Cochran), who has taken ill, are enjoying the hospitality of American industrialist Don (Rick Snyder) and his self-absorbed wife Nancy (a marvelously ditzy Amy Morton). The local no-nonsense power broker Aunty Mimi (in a commanding performance by Ora Jones) arrives to learn about the apparent rebel hostilities. Jane has reluctantly agreed to treatment by Don's African doctor (drolly played by Kenn E. Head), and Dave is uncomfortable with accepting the hospitality of the man he believes to be exploiting the locals, but with a fierce thunderstorm outside, Dave and Jane are stuck inside Don's villa (handsomely designed by Todd Rosenthal) for a while longer than they had planned. This sets up the classic theatrical device of confinement that forces the four Americans, Aunty Mimi, and The Doctor into confrontation. Dave and Jane's relationship is called into question, as is Jane's commitment to the cause (she's a successful TV actress who wanted to do something more meaningful). The troubled nature of Don and Nancy's marriage is revealed.

In the second act, after the boy escapes and Dave leaves the house during the storm, Dave's safety and well-being are in doubt after Aunty Mimi sees him entering a strange vehicle. This sets up the question of whether the Americans are in fact any less barbaric than the most vicious of the Africans. The Americans are certainly more annoying than the Africans, and though the comic foibles of the two couples are initially entertaining as executed with precision under Anna D. Shapiro's tight direction, the four Americans grow tiresome. Aunty Mimi and the Doctor are smarter and stronger than the Americans who constantly underestimate them and there's never any question where Norris' sympathies lie. Fair enough ... he's trying to challenge an American audience, but he plays his hand too soon and too often in this piece. After the intricately plotted The Pain and the Itch (opening Off-Broadway this season), which only made its intentions fully known at the very end, it's a disappointment to see where this one is heading from so far away.

The Unmentionables will play through August 27 at Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. Curtain times are Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m., as well as Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. and Wednesday matinees on August 9, 16 and 23 at 2 p.m. There will be no Sunday evening performances on August 13, 20 and 27. For tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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